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Promoting A Sense Of Self: The Environment

The environment consists of the space in which children learn as well as the people in that space—their peers and caregivers. Infant and toddler caregivers help establish environments and determine what infants, toddlers, and families will experience within a care setting. This lesson will focus on how the environment influences children’s sense of self and will describe how you can create environments that engage children in meaningful experiences that promote development.

  • Describe how the environment influences a sense of self.
  • Consider the importance of adult self-awareness as part of the environment.
  • Consider unique challenges and opportunities affecting sense of self for members of military communities.
  • Recognize methods of self-care that help infant and toddler caregiver be healthier and more effective.



Think about some of the memorable environments you experienced as a young child. Consider places that left you with happy memories, like your childhood home, a relative’s home, schools, a favorite vacation spot, or your local park. These environments bring back good memories because you likely felt safe and secure and had fun. Think about what else makes these environments memorable. Was it just the place itself, or was it also the people there with you? The people in a learning environment play a crucial role in making it positive.

Now think about environments that left you with unpleasant memories? What was different about these environments? Was it a feeling of uncertainty, fear, boredom, or anxiety? Was it a feeling of not being welcomed and encouraged? Was it unsupportive or emotionally unavailable adults? The environments we are in and the people we share our environments with help shape who we are. Our self-concepts are developed in homes, schools, libraries, and playgrounds, and with our families, friends, and child care providers. The learning environment that you are creating will impact the children and families you serve.

As an infant and toddler caregiver, think about how the physical and social environment of your classroom influences how people feel about themselves, and if they feel welcome, safe, and valued in your space. You can think critically about the messages families receive when you talk to them or when they see you interacting with infants and toddlers, or when they complete school forms. By doing so, you can help children and families feel confident and proud of their identities, and happy and secure in your setting. This lesson will help you identify specific ways to meet this important goal.

Consider the situations below. These kinds of scenarios can happen in any program. 

  • An infant and toddler caregiver greets families as they enter the infant classroom. Hayden buries his head in his mom’s shoulder and peers out to smile at the baby who crawls over to see them. The caregiver laughs and says, “Look at you smiling at Francessca! Are you flirting? What a ladies’ man! You come here, buddy.” A few minutes later, Josie arrives with her mother. Like Hayden, Josie buries her head in her mother’s shoulder and smiles as she turns to glimpse at her caregiver. This time the caregiver says teasingly, “Aw, someone is shy! Why are you being shy with me? Don’t you be shy with me, you’re my doll baby!” 
  • Clarice, a new mom, fills out the intake paperwork and developmental screeners for her infant. As she tries to answer questions about family history, she grows more frustrated. She adopted her son and some questions assume he was born into the family. She does not know where or how to communicate the information.

What messages is each young child receiving about his or her identity? What messages are the families receiving about what and who you and your program value? What messages are they receiving about the expectations you or your program has for them?

As you read the scenarios, perhaps you felt a pang of empathy for the children and families. Some individuals were not receiving positive messages about their identities. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you are responsible for creating safe, nurturing, welcoming, and accepting environments for all children and families in your program. In doing so, you need to consider not only the physical space, but also social interactions and exchanges that take place within that space. Take a few moments to consider alternative ways the above scenarios could have occurred: 

  • Infant Hayden buries his head in his mom’s shoulder and peers out to smile at the baby who crawls over to see them. The caregiver laughs and says, “Good morning, Hayden! What a good snuggle you are giving your Mama. I can tell you are happy to see your friends, too.” A few minutes later, Josie arrives with her mother. Like Hayden, Josie buries her head in her mother’s shoulder and smiles as she turns to glimpse at her caregiver. This time the caregiver says, “Hi Josie! We’re so glad you’re here! Hayden and Mariah are playing with books. Would you like to come over, or not yet?”
  • Clarice, a new mom, fills out the intake paperwork and developmental screeners for her infant. The form does not assume that she gave birth to her son, but asks if her child was adopted so she can skip over sections that do not apply. Space is provided where she can share information about the circumstances in which her son became part of her family. She is happy to see a statement that she can skip any question or talk to an administrator in person about the form. She tells her partner that she thinks they chose a really great place for their son.

Environments that Promote Infant and Toddler Sense of Self

Environments play a large part in identity formation and comprise many aspects. As discussed in the Learning Environments course, an environment is a combination of the physical space, appearance, and contents as well as the people, relationships, and sense of community within it. 

As an adult, you may have several choices about where you spend your time. You can seek out places that you feel good in and you can avoid places that make you feel uncomfortable or stressed. Infants and toddlers do not have this level of control about where and how they spend their time. In Lessons One and Two, you learned that infants and toddlers develop their identities primarily as a result of the messages they receive from the significant adults in their lives. The children in your program will likely spend a large amount of their day with you. Therefore, it is essential that the choices you make regarding the environment convey that they are accepted, valued, and capable. According to J. Ronald Lally, an expert in infant-toddler development, infants and toddlers learn the following things from their caregivers that influence their sense of self:

  • What to fear
  • Which behaviors are appropriate
  • How messages are received and acted upon
  • How successful they are at getting their needs met by others
  • What emotions and intensity level of emotions they can safely display
  • How interesting they are 

What do these messages look and feel like in your care setting? What messages do you want your care setting to send? How do you want infants, toddlers, and families to feel while they are in your care setting? What do you want them to learn about themselves? 

We all want to provide children with spaces that are safe, welcoming, and responsive. Intentional planning and design can help ensure that your care setting is a special place for the infants, toddlers, and families you support. Your care setting should be a warm and supportive space that encourages infants and toddlers to be who they are with you and explore new ideas. It should be stimulating, and developmentally appropriate. It should validate children’s thoughts and feelings, and provide numerous opportunities to practice skills and experience success. 

Download and read the Zero to Three article, The Science and Psychology of Infant-Toddler Care, available in the Learn section of this lesson, to learn more about establishing an environment with an infant or toddler’s sense of self in mind. 


Environments tell a story about who and what is important. Therefore, your environment should reflect the different cultures, personalities, needs, interests, strengths, and development levels of the children, families, and providers who spend time there.  Ongoing attention to the social, physical, and academic dimensions of the environment (Loukas, 2007), as well as the verbal elements of your environment (Kostelnik, Stein, & Whiren, 2012) is key to creating a high-quality space that promotes learning, exploration, and respect for individual differences. Take a moment to reflect on the ideas highlighted below. In what ways does your environment reflect this guidance? How can you improve your environment to make it more welcoming and supportive of the children and families you serve?

  • Clean, safe and properly lit environments to support young children’s exploration
  • Calm environment to support young children’s abilities to focus on their caregivers, each other and the materials they are exploring
  • Child-sized furniture to enable young children to reach materials on low shelves and take part in daily routines
  • Caring, responsive adults nearby to interact with children and encourage and support social experiences for infants and toddlers at varying stages of development
  • Cozy area for infants and toddlers to support relaxation and comfort
  • Adaptive materials and equipment such as special seating for body positioning, adapted utensils for eating, or toys that become activated in response to sounds or movement
  • Accurate representations of the cultures, languages, and families in the greater community
  • A variety of books, materials, and supplies to interest and meet the developmental needs of all children
  • Language from adults that is kind, caring, demonstrates responsiveness to children’s needs and ideas, and is always respectful


Addressing the Needs of Diverse Learners and Families

As highlighted in Lesson Two, no two children or families will ever be the same in your program and it is your responsibility to be sensitive and responsive to each child’s and family’s needs. This impacts how you organize and plan your school-age program environment to ensure all children will be successful. For example, while some children in your program may be able to thrive in busy, crowded, and even loud surroundings, others may require quiet, less crowded and less busy spaces. 

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states that in order to support all children’s development, caregivers must begin from a place that considers (1) research-based information about children of that age generally, (2) the unique, individual child (e.g., interests, needs, strengths, worries), and (3) what is known about the child’s social and cultural context (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2020). This is the common, foundational component of all practices that follow, including the early childhood environment. Infant and toddler caregivers and environments need to be dynamic to meet the diverse and ever-changing needs of every child in your care. You will have to:

  • Modify your infant/toddler environment to meet the needs of individual children in your program
  • Adjust for differences in individual children throughout the day or day-to-day as circumstances change and events occur
  • Provide modifications as children grow and their needs change
  • Make accommodations to include the multiple ages or developmental stages of the children you serve in each activity and learning setting
  • Change your environment and practices as you learn more about best practices and the children and families you support

Embracing Family Experiences: Considerations for Programs Serving Military Families

Imagine how being in a military family would shape someone’s identity. For many families, military service and personal identity can be intertwined. Consider these potential influences: 

  • Living on a military installation: Most families, military and civilian alike, base their identities in some part on where they live. Where a family lives can send messages about their lifestyles, preferences, and experiences. Children form their identity and sense of self based in part on their home and surrounding community. For military families, living on an installation can build a strong sense of community. This helps shape how the family sees itself in relation to others.
  • Deployment: Deployment is one of the most stressful events a family can experience. Families must learn to adapt to changing circumstances before, during, and after a deployment. The service member’s sense of self may change drastically as a result of experiences during deployment. The family members, particularly spouses, can also experience changes in how they perceive themselves after long periods of independence or parenting solo.
  • Frequent moves: A Permanent Change of Station (PCS) can cause a great deal of stress for families as children adjust to new schools, programs, and friends. Children and family members may reinvent themselves in a new location, or they may struggle to define themselves in a new school or community.
  • Work hours: Military family members may also work unconventional or long hours when they are home.
  • Retirement and return to civilian life: Many individuals who retire from military service are young and find themselves ready for a second career. This can be a difficult transition. Service members may have a difficult time finding new employment in which their skills are valued. They may feel a sense of loss as they leave the active-duty community and may struggle to develop their civilian identity.

Remember that issues that affect civilian families affect military families, too. Divorce or marital conflict, unemployment for a spouse or partner, and health care needs are just a few of the events that can shape a family’s identity.

Military life is not all about challenges, though. Military families have a variety of supports that you can help families maximize. Military families often have a strong sense of community. They may live on an installation with other military families, and they may have a group of friends in similar circumstances. They also have access to health-care, mental-health, and advocacy resources through their service or installation. These can be valuable assets for families as they work to define themselves. Finally, they have access to you—military childcare. You understand the families’ contexts and can be a valuable source of support.

Here are some additional ways to support military families, based on recommendations from families surveyed in the National Military Family Association Report on the Cycles of Deployment (2005): 

  • Help a family to be realistic in their expectations of themselves and of each other. This applies to deployment, changing station, retirement, and other major life transitions. Help families open lines of communication with one another about their expectations, fears, and excitement.
  • Provide families with information about how their child might react before, during, and after deployment or other transitions. Recognize that children’s responses will vary based on age, developmental stage, and temperament.
  • Offer ongoing support to families regarding return and reunion challenges.
  • Remember that families—even those with experience—do not always have the information and support they need.

Considering Your Own Sense of Self and Wellness: Taking Care of Yourself While Taking Care of Others

Adults who care for themselves are better able to care for and support children. Remember that early interactions with important adults help define how infants and toddlers see themselves and what they expect from others. When adults are emotionally available to respond to a young child’s cues with affection and patience, they are teaching the child that they are safe and important. An adult who is under stress, coping with trauma, or experiencing mental health problems or addiction will have a harder time caring for young children until the caregiver themselves receives the help they need.

Self-care is an active and powerful choice. Caring for yourself means engaging in activities that increase or maintain your optimal level of overall health. This includes not just the physical, but also the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being. Practicing self-care is an indication of a positive self-concept. Staff members who are aware of self-care practices can act as positive role models for children. You can create an environment that helps children to engage in self-care. Your own self-care practices can be a starting place to demonstrate the importance of self-care.

All of us can find ourselves struggling to make sense of situations and relationships at times, with children, our work more broadly, or in our personal lives. With children, observations are one of our best strategies to help you understand a child in your program better, which in turn can change your feelings or thoughts about that child. Whether a child or adult, when we understand someone better, we almost always are better able to feel compassion and kindness towards them. Another strategy you can use is visualization. See yourself interacting positively with an infant or toddler in your program. If he or she displays behaviors that seem to disrupt your teaching approach, try seeing this child without those behaviors and you responding in a caring way. Then, try carrying out your imagined caring response with the child. According to former center director Jeff Johnson (2007), your attitude can help you make changes in your life and your program. Johnson has six suggestions: 

  • Positive outlook: Thinking positively about situations and people can help you bring about beneficial outcomes. Your personal outlook on life plays an important role in your self-care.
  • Self-awareness: Knowing who you are includes being aware of your feelings, your breath, your emotions, your thoughts, and your relationships. Start by taking an inventory of your strengths and areas for growth.
  • Healthy selfishness: It is important to recognize your own needs as valid and do what is necessary to meet them.
  • Relinquish control: Allowing yourself to relax and see things as gray instead of black and white can allow you to see more options and opportunities.
  • Playful attitude: Changing your mindset requires playfulness, curiosity, and excitement. Try exploring life through the eyes of a child and see how different things seem.
  • Thoughtful choices: As life gets busy, slow down and make sure you are making thoughtful choices. Reconcile with yourself that you may never master a task perfectly and sometimes it is going to have to be good enough.


As you watch the video below, consider how the physical environment and the caregivers’ reactions help support young infants’, mobile infants’, and toddlers’ developing sense of self.

Environments That Promote Sense of Self

Watch this video to see how these environments and caregiver interactions help support infants’ and toddlers’ at different points in their development.


In safe, nurturing, responsive, and accepting environments, infants and toddlers can develop a sense of self and self-confidence that says, “I matter,” “I am deserving,” and “I can make things happen.” However, in unpredictable, less-responsive, and unwelcoming environments, they may come to feel fearful and anxious while seeing the world as unsafe.

Below are some things you can do in your environments everyday to support a developing sense of self for the infants and toddlers in your care:

  • Get to know and respect each child in your program as an individual.
  • Show interest and be actively involved in what children are doing in your program.
  • Respond to and meet children’s individual needs in a timely manner.
  • Respond positively as each child develops new skills or accomplishes tasks.
  • Organize and offer materials in a way that enables all children in your care to actively participate.
  • Support all children and continually ensure all children feel safe to be themselves in your family child care.
  • Plan activities that encourage children to express themselves and explore their sense of self and others


What types of spaces helped you feel safe, valued, confident, understood, and successful when you were growing up? Which of these characteristics or qualities do you want to try to recreate within your infant and toddler care setting? Download and print the Self-Reflection: Environments activity. Take a few minutes to respond to the questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


In this lesson we introduced the idea of self-care and its importance in your work as an infant toddler caregiver. Read the following attachment, What is Self-Care?, and take the Self-Care Assessment to identify strategies you currently use to help promote your own health and resilience, and strategies you might wish to incorporate into your self-care plan. 

Work to develop a self-care plan that is balanced in the different areas: physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual, and workplace/professional. Try to form habits that span these different areas of self-care. Share your self-care plan with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


True or False? It is important that the environment of an early care setting reflects the different cultures, personalities, and development of the children, families, and caregivers.
Which of the following is not an appropriate strategy to use to support military families in your care?
A six-month-old has been crying non-stop for over 30 minutes. You have tried feeding them, changing their diaper, singing to them, and holding them as you walk around the room. You notice that your breathing has become shallow and you are beginning to feel frustrated by the crying. You ask your co-worker to take over while you practice deep breathing techniques and visualize yourself interacting with a calm, happy baby. What is this an example of?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.

Erdman, S., Colker, L. J., & Winter, E. C. (July 2020). Preventing compassion fatigue: Caring for yourself. Young Children, 75(3).

Fox, L., & Lentini, R. H. (2006). “You got it!" Teaching social and emotional skills. Young Children, 61(6), 36-42.

Gartrell, D. (2006). Guidance matters: Build relationships through talk. Young Children, 61(5), 50-52.

Johnson, J. (2007). Finding your smile again: A child care professional's guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. Redleaf Press.

Kostelnik, M. J., Stein, L. C., & Whiren, A. P. (2012). Children’s self-esteem: The verbal environment. Childhood Education, 65(1), 29.

Loukas, A. (2007). What is school climate? Leadership Compass, 5(1), 1-3.

Meece, D., & Soderman, A. K. (2010). Positive verbal environments: Setting the stage for young children's social development. Young Children, 81-86.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (April, 2020). Developmentally appropriate practice.

National Military Family Association. (2005). Report on the cycles of deployment: An analysis of survey responses from April through September 

Petty, K. (2009). Deployment: Strategies for working with kids in military families. Redleaf Press.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2013). Infant and toddler development and responsive program planning: A relationship-based approach (2nd ed.). Merrill Prentice-Hall.